SNSD vs SJJD: Why Girls’ Generation have so many female fans

If you were to ask a Korean what the average Girls’ Generation fan looks like, their descriptions might have quite a lot variation but they would likely have one thing in common: they would  be male. The group’s target demographic is no secret, SM founder Lee Soo-man has even said it himself: ‘People in their 30s and the 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group’.

But if you were to cross the sea over to Japan, the story becomes quite different. Debuting in 2010, Girls’ Generation have managed to replicate their success in Korea and build up a massive fanbase in Japan topping the Oricon single and album charts multiple times. However, unlike their Korean fans, the group’s Japanese fans are mostly young and female.

Given how often Girls’ Generation’s songs are criticised for having lyrics and videos that are not empowering to women, how is it that they have managed to gain such a large number of Japanese female fans?

AKB48

Top J-pop girl group AKB48

One of the reasons often cited is that they offer an alternative to the popular Japanese girl groups like AKB48 and Morning Musume who hold the same place in the Japanese market as SNSD do in the Korean market. Most of these groups have naïve images, use gratuitous fan service and often have graduation systems and as a result have very little to offer a young female audience. By contrast, Girls’ Generation with their more mature image, strong group identity and polished dance performances are very attractive for young women looking for an aspirational image of femininity.

It’s unclear whether this was their intended audience right from the get-go in Japan. Their first single was almost a straight up remake of their 2009 hit ‘Genie’ (although, notably, the male POV shots at the beginning of the Korean video are completely absent) but by the time they released their ‘Gee’ remake, there were definitely hints that the group were aiming at a female demographic. While in the Korean videos they are literally objectified as shop window dummies, in the Japanese version they are instead the owners of the shop, going from motionless mannequins to entrepreneurs and designers.

The music might be the same but if you look carefully it’s clear that Japanese Shoujo Jidai (SJJD) is significantly different from Korean Sonyeo Shidae (SNSD) despite being the same group. One of the best examples of this is their most recent remake ‘Oh!’ from the end of last year.

A simplistic take on the difference between the SNSD and the SJJD videos is that because the Japanese version was made three years after the original, the SNSD are high school cheerleaders whereas as SJJD they are college cheerleaders but if you look deeper, the differences are much more intriguing than that. Here is a side by side comparison if you are interested:

In the original video, SNSD are portrayed throughout as childlike, naïve and a little bit stupid (see Jessica’s cheerleading mistake at 1:44 as an example) and there is a constant reminder of a male presence throughout (repeated use of an American football helmet as a stand in for the love interest and the brief appearance of some football players as a couple of examples). SJJD, on the other hand, come across as intelligent (reading books and playing instruments) and stylish (dressed in well put together and not particularly revealing outfits, clearly targeted at a fashion conscious female audience) and the male presence is much less pronounced (the locker room is highly stylised and there is no singing into football helmets). It should also be noted that none of the close ups of body parts in the Korean version are present in the Japanese version which opts for many more wide shots which show them all as a group dancing together.

SNSD Flower Power2While the lyrical themes are similar, the videos are markedly different and the SJJD version offers up the cuteness of the original alongside a strong but feminine image in a way which is much more appealing to young women. It should also be mentioned that the chorus was kept in the original Korean and similarly most of their other Japanese singles incorporate Korean into the lyrics. I would argue that this is an attempt to cash in on the ‘cool’ factor of Hallyu which seems, from experience, to be prevalent among young females in Japan and create something which is just foreign enough and yet just familiar enough stand out against the typical J-pop girl group image but still relatable and even aspirational.

But Japanese fans do not make up the entirety of Girls’ Generation’s female fanbase and to a large extent the more female-targeted Japanese music videos simply highlight the aspects of the group which have been drawing in countless female fans all over the world.

While writing this article, I did some highly scientific research (involving posting a K-pop Facebook group) to find out why so many foreign fans of Girls’ Generation are female and what it is that draws them to the group and the results were overwhelmingly consistent. Female fans enjoy SNSD for a number of reasons but there are a few universal attractions:

  1. They are very physically attractive and portray an ideal image of femininity
  2. They are talented, work hard and are good role models
  3. They are also inspirational in terms of fashion and body image
  4. They are relatable and have strong personalities
  5. They seem to have very close sisterly personal relationships

Interestingly, although some conceded that their lyrics were not empowering, they felt that the group still embodied ‘girl power’ as a collection of young women who have risen to the very top by working hard. Many even felt that they could relate to many of the supposedly disempowering lyrics, as one fan put it:

‘I’m so over this obsession with trying to give off the impression that you don’t need or even particularly want a man. It’s not realistic, be honest, have you really never had a moment where you felt helpless because of the feelings you had for some guy? It’s real, it happens, and making out like it’s terrible and something to be ashamed of seems more insulting to me than singing songs about it.’

A recent birthday party photo  from Taeyeon's insagram

A recent birthday party photo from Taeyeon’s insagram

One of the most consistent themes was that they felt invested in the perceived personalities and close relationships between all the members of the group. Their affinity with the group seems to exist despite the negative aspects of their music videos more than because of them and they feel far more connected to them because of their distinctive, individual personas and sisterly bonds which they have seen in other forms of media from TV appearances to fancams to members’ Instagram photos. They are drawn to their physical beauty (many described them as ‘perfect’) but feel that their down-to-earth personalities make them relatable. It’s no surprise then that female SNSD fans seem to engage in the most same-sex shipping, which range from an obsession with a friendship to something more sexual, among female K-pop girl group fans as the group (and their label SM Entertainment) appear to have carefully constructed close personal relationships among its members more successfully than any other group.

Girls’ Generation may not have songs which are particularly empowering in themselves but many female fans still find them to be aspirational and influential role models because of their personas and their successes. Sophie wrote in a previous article about how in many ways the K-pop world is a fantasy which does not exist beyond the gaze of the viewer and it is also true that an obsession with any fantasy can be damaging to all those involved. However a healthy affinity for a positive image of hard-working young women and an aspirational model of close female relationships is no bad thing and if that’s what female fans most get from SNSD then I can’t see it causing problems for either party.

The reasons why people like things are often hard to fathom but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t legitimate. Whether or not you agree that Girls’ Generation’s image is empowering, it will continue to draw in female fans from across the world. For that reason alone it’s good to see that in one market at least this huge fanbase is being catered for in a positive way. The group’s latest single, choreographed by renowned female choreographer Rino Nakasone, is the best of bunch lyrically (although not musically!) encouraging girls to ‘step forward in [their] own way’ and I personally hope that these kinds of releases will continue in order to represent the group’s female fans, not just in Japan but across the world.

(Look how much fun these fans are having, even in the rain!)

Are Girls’ Generation empowering? Let us know in the comments.

This is part of a series of posts on gender in K-pop and Korean society.

  • emjay

    excellent article! while I’m not the biggest fan of SNSD I do like the girls a lot, and it’s definitely got more to do with their personalities and friendships than it does with their music (which is generally not penned by the girls themselves anyhow, so the lack of ~girl empowerment~ does not bother me as much). they work incredibly well as a group but they also have their own personalities and I tend to enjoy the girls more off the stage than on it, since onstage/camera personas are so often manufactured.

  • Soshi Fann

    Thank you for a very interesting article. I’ve also become interested in SNSD because if their relatable personalities and care for each other. Their music and videos are fun to watch and listen to, but it’s their genuineness that is so appealing. While I completely understand that their public images and music are a “product” of SME, it would be almost impossible to fake the “real” people behind the personalities; especially given the limitless spotlight these women are constantly under all over Asia. I do consider them a role model for people of any gender. They’ve worked hard (and continue to do so), made sacrifices and realized their dreams; all while staying humble and respectable. What better role models could anyone ask for?

  • IMakeMyPoint

    Actually, they do have songs about female empowerment, Like Run Devil Run and Hoot are both about how they warn the boys about cheating and how they won’t take it meekly if men hurt them.
    But lyrics are not the most important.
    SNSD do not need to song about female empowerment, not when they can actually do it. They literally beat all the male groups and artists by selling more than them in a traditionally male-pop-group dominated industry.
    The don’t need lyrics, not when they can be the living examples. Other groups may have more female empowerment lyrics, but those are just words.
    I feel SNSD being living examples is far more empowering to females

  • Erepyon

    “Given how often Girls’ Generation’s songs are criticised for having lyrics and videos that are not empowering to women” –> well, eventhough I kinda understand abut this statement, but actually they have songs about female empowerment. Even since the beginning with their debut song “Into the New World”, the song and the music video itself I think are quite inspiring. It taught us to leave the sadness, get up when falling down, never give up, and walk toward a better future by pursuing our dreams.
    Also the song like The Boys, clearly shows about “Girl Power”. There is also song like T.O.P (from their japanese album) that shows that girls can be on the top, be a leader.
    But then again, the lyrics of their songs may not sound like empowering women, but just look at their journey as SNSD, that itself already empowering and inspiring not only for women, but men as well.
    Remember when they first debuted in 2007. Even when they haven’t officially debuted, people already doubted them, bashed them, and predicted that they won’t last long. After they debuted, they still got some horrible treatments (who can forget the Black Ocean in 2008, the worst time of their journey as SNSD). But look at them now! After being called National Girl Group, now they have become Asia’s No.1 Girl Group. They literally become a legend now. Fans or not, who can deny about their fame and popularity.
    From 9 ordinary girls to become the only Idol group who were voted one of the most influencial Power Leader from Korea (and yes, this is official by Asia Today’s List). I think it’s empowering enough, right?

  • Melzy Cheezesticks

    Great read. I really like articles like these. A real pity I came across Beyond Hallyu only recently. I’m definitely going to offer a biased opinion here, but I will try to be as fair-minded as possible. BTW, what about female fans in Korea? What’s their fan demographics?

    I’ve liked them for 8 years. And for that 8 years, I wondered why. In the past year, I’ve grown to like them even more (if that was even possible), of reasons you’ve stated above. But still why???

    Being bombarded with sexy concepts and skimpy dressing recently, I feel like the industry is becoming regressive for women. And then SNSD came back with a mannish concept. I don’t know if its a direct challenge to the industry but I feel like my dignity as a woman is being resurrected. Exuding class while still ever the funniest off-stage…

    If I could compare them to Hollywood personalities, I would say Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley. The girls-next-door showing sophistication as Hallyu stars but off-camera, jokers with a strong sense of responsibility towards people who love them and the “So Nyeo Shi Dae” title.

    • Daphne

      Let’s remember this: “mannish” concepts are not any more empowering than the sexy concept. Behaving and dressing like a man as a way to show how strong and relatable, etc, you are does not mean that you are an empowered woman. You are pushing aside the attributes that make you woman.
      Real empowering concepts in Kpop are Orange Caramel concepts, Twinkle, I Am the Best, etc. that allow idols to express their femininity as a source of strength without catering to the male gaze.

  • Annie

    To be honest, as a foreign fan, I never notice they “lack girl empowerment”. Maybe because when I listen to their music, despite the subtitles, I never really know enough of what they are singing about therefore never think about consequence of their music to young women. To me, they are catchy and really cute music I can dance to in my shower. But I do like the personality and friendship they portray on the television. I think its because of the drastic contrast between the American reality program, which is so toxic with all the wine splashing, gossiping and cat fighting. But most importantly, as an Asian American, they connect with me more than any American pop star. Since I have asian feature and figure, it is easier and more sensible for me follow their make trend. (example, I cannot apply makeup the same way Anne Hathaway can, since our feature is so different. but whenever I go to sephora and ask someone to do makeup for me, they always go with what THEY think “Asian” will good in, which is a stereotypical Beijing opera look with red eye shadow, and exaggerating my eye shape until I look like mulan. My natural eye shape is not even close to the animation. If they have a dragon stamp, they will probably stamp it on my face). I just don’t understand, these girls looks fantastic, but non of them looks like they are mulan…Right? And that for me, as an Asian American girl is very empowering.

  • Henning Gu

    I didn’t even notice that. Excellent article.